New Internationalist

When the tide goes out, the rocks are revelealed

Issue 371

Media barons claim that the foreign press can help bring democracy to China. Yuezhi Zhao tracks the paper tigers lurking in their rhetoric.

As I flicked through my local paper – The Vancouver Sun – on an October morning in 2002, a headline jumped out to grab my attention. ‘Playboy’s Interest in China Rises’, it said. Is this the type of press freedom that the media thinks will help bring democracy to China, I wondered, as I ate my breakfast?

In April this year, The New York Times brought news that Britain’s bawdy ‘lad mags’ FHM and Maxim are planning China editions. And – as The Times editorialized – because foreign magazine content has to be tailored for Chinese tastes and standards, these titles will need a major overhaul before they are distributed in China. A feature such as Maxim’s ‘Vote For Hometown Hotties’ may not only be ‘too tasteless for Beijing’s censors. It’s probably too democratic.’

It’s a far cry from News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch’s bold prediction that international media penetration of China – in his company’s case through the spread of satellite television – would undermine authoritarian governments everywhere. But then again, Mr Murdoch has himself resiled from this position – a prudent but self-serving commercial move designed to curry favour with the Government (see (http://www.newint.org/issue333/title333.htm)[NI 333] for a fuller report). Just last October, when he was a guest speaker at the Central Party School in Beijing, he cajoled top Party bosses to liberalize China’s media market while reassuring them that market openness is compatible with the maintenance of the political power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Still, the mainstream view holds that China’s WTO entry and the opening of its media system to foreign owners will inevitably undermine the CCP’s authoritarian control and facilitate press freedom. In the US debates leading to the congressional ratification of the US-China WTO accession agreement in 2000, industry lobbyists, mainstream media commentators and politicians – Republican and Democratic alike – all proclaimed that opening China’s communication and cultural markets ‘will make it virtually impossible for Beijing to control freedom of communications in China’.

The underlying assumption has been that because state media control in China is incompatible with the free global media marketplace, the activities of transnational media corporations in China will have an inherently democratizing effect. At the heart of this assumption, democracy is linked to the marketplace, citizens’ freedom of expression is (wrongly) equated with the freedom of transnational media corporations to do business everywhere; while freedom itself is equated with the free circulation of commodities. Former Vice-President Al Gore went even further: ‘As awareness of environmental problems and labour rights is spread through free communication, the pressure within China for improvements will naturally increase.’

Though such notions are less explicitly articulated in China (for obvious political reasons) liberal Chinese media analysts have also more or less internalized this view. They use foreign media entry as a rhetorical device to champion press freedom, seeing it as an integral part of China’s economic integration with global capitalism. The thinking behind this is clear: since press freedom and capitalism go hand in hand in the West, global capitalism will bring press freedom.

Their wishful thinking extends to the fond hope that the WTO would force the Chinese State to accept internationally acceptable ‘rules of the game’ in media regulation.

Nans Blossey / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com
A ‘come on' poster like this one may herald less censorship but it is unlikely to promote democracy. Nans Blossey / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

Profits and democracy

The idea of being in the vanguard of freedom and democracy serves as an effective political and moral justification for transnational media corporations eyeing the huge Chinese market. It reflects the aspirations of the Chinese liberal élite for a stable and more open form of intra-élite bargaining in Chinese politics through a more open press. While there is no denying that the entry of foreign media may lead to some new openings, this hope is ultimately misplaced for a number of reasons.

First, it underestimates the clout of the Chinese Government in negotiating the entry of transnational capital into the Chinese market while maintaining censorship. For example, the Guangdong provincial cable authority – a State-owned entity – censors politically sensitive content. One of the three principles that governed the entry of Time Warner/AOL and News Corporation’s Star TV to Chinese-language satellite channels in Guangdong was the continuing right of the provincial cable network to block information they deem undesirable from going out during transmission. In the past when sensitive items during the transmission of news programmes were blocked, a blank screen would confront the viewer. Now, viewers get nice pictures.

Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal has stated, not only have transnational media barons such as Rupert Murdoch ‘found out that he had much less leverage than he thought’ in dealing with the Chinese Government but ‘when big sums of shareholders’ money are involved, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to self-censor’. The simple fact is that transnational media corporations are in China to make a profit, not to promote free expression among the Chinese citizenry. Instead of being ‘messengers of democracy,’ media analyst Chin-Chuan Lee has predicted, ‘global media companies will be as “politically correct” as many US companies that have advocated reductions in labour costs and more restrictions on labour rights in China.’

As The New York Times put it: ‘When Western magazine publishers look at China, they see 1.3 billion readers, just as General Motors sees 1.3 billion drivers and Coca-Cola sees 1.3 billion thirsts to quench.’ If corporate profits mean collaborating with the Chinese State, accepting censorship and focusing on entertainment, fashion and peddling women in next to nothing, so be it.

The second flaw in the idea that foreign media will bring a more democratic free press is that a causal connection between the two is debatable. Even assuming that foreign media can enter China unfiltered, the double-standards of the US-dominated transnational media in global affairs coverage are well documented, as is their complicity in sustaining authoritarian regimes throughout the world. Although democracy and human rights will continue to serve as relevant themes for reporting China, transnational media corporations have a more pressing agenda: securing a stable environment for capital accumulation. From imperialist involvement in Latin America to indifference to Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor to coverage of Yeltsin’s plutocracy in post-communist Russia, the record of US-based transnational media allegiance to democracy is, to say the least, mixed and highly contingent on the interests of US capital.

Similarly, though the ‘rules of the game’ may create a more preferable form of media regulation in China, the State can always use draconian measures to curtail popular expression.

Communists and capitalists converge

With China’s embrace of the market and consumerism, the ideologies of global capitalism and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ are converging. Besides, the CCP has officially embraced capitalists and re-written its Constitution to welcome them into its ranks. The Constitution now protects private property.

More substantively, as Chinese society assumes the general social, economic and cultural characteristics of capitalism, the potential for ideological cross-promotion between capitalist and Chinese media is limitless. For example, where does one draw the ‘communist versus capitalist’ line when former Party boss Jiang Zemin admired the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic for its ideological work – specifically its discourse on class relations – thereby turning himself into the highest-profile promoter of the film in China.

The naïve hope that foreign press brings free press – especially as expressed by Chinese media reformers – is oblivious to the profound social tensions in Chinese society and the CCP’s need to use the media as a means of social control. The reality is that in today’s Guangzhou – one of the most open and prosperous windows of Chinese capitalism – the media were not even allowed to carry job advertising aimed at migrant workers. Why? With millions of migrant workers descending each spring on Guangzhou in desperate search of jobs, a media advertisement can be an open invitation for more rural migrants to flood in and form dangerous mobs outside a factory door.

At a time when the minority urban population fear that the huge rural population will outvote it, and when private property owners fear another radical populist social revolution, the social justification for political authoritarianism is deeply entrenched. The role of the media must be understood within this context.

When Dan Rather reported from Tian’anmen Square on the 1989 pro-democracy movement with great sympathy, he was not yet working for a transnational entertainment conglomerate (Viacom) with investments in China. Nor were his fellow leading American news anchors. Today, the linkages between transnational media conglomerates and the Chinese State are probably closer than most of us would like to think. Can we count on them – including the Playboys and the Maxims – to bring democracy to China? I don’t think so.

Yuezhi Zhao is an Associate Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Made in China

At a glance Ranking as an economic power – 6th. Average growth rate between 1978 and 2000 – 9.5%. Expected time at which China will overtake the US economy (based on size of GDP) according to – * the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (China’s most prestigious research centre) 2030. * other sources, estimates range from 11 to 50 years. YEAR NUMBER OF PRIVATE ENTERPRISES 1980 0 1990 98,000 1999

At a glance Ranking as an economic power – 6th. Average growth rate between 1978 and 2000 – 9.5%. Expected time at which China will overtake the US economy (based on size of GDP) according to – * the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (China’s most prestigious research centre) 2030. * other sources, estimates range from 11 to 50 years.

YEAR NUMBER OF PRIVATE ENTERPRISES 1980 0 1990 98,000 1999 1,509,000 Average annual growth rate – 35.5%

The world’s production line Nearly 400 of the world’s top 500 enterprises have built plants in China. PRODUCTS PERCENTAGE OF WORLD OUTPUT MADE IN CHINA Motorcycles 43% Colour TVs 40% Computer keyboards 39% Mobile phones 35% Air-conditioners 32% Washing machines 26% Refrigerators 19% From 1993 to 2002, China has been the second largest recipient of direct foreign investment next only to the US. Workforce 744.32 million: * urban workforce – 256.39 million (34.4%); * rural workforce – 487.93 million (65.6%).

Of workers in the rural workforce, there is an estimated 100 million who engage in agricultural production and 300-400 million who form a surplus of un- or under-employed.

Sources: Beijing Youth Daily & Youth Humanities and Social Science Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Modernization in China: The effects on its people and economic development, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, 2004; China Daily, 5 February 2004; ‘Migrant workers: urban underclass,’ China Today, 14 April 2004; Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, ‘Nation tackles unemployment situation: Foreword’, China Daily website ((http://www.chinadaily.com.cn)[www.chinadaily.com.cn]), 27 April 2004.

If corporate profit means collaborating with the Chinese State and accepting censorship, so be it

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on When the tide goes out, the rocks are revelealed

Leave your comment